The zoo was right to kill the gorilla to protect the boy

There’s a scene in the movie Man of Steel when Clark Kent’s dad sacrifices his life to save a dog. It’s very dramatic, and it’s portrayed as heroic. But despite all the pathos and drama, there’s nothing heroic about treating a dog’s life as the moral equivalent of a human life. In fact, it’s an evidence of pagan decadence to think like that, which is why that scene made sense to American movie-goers in 2013 but would have made no sense to Americans of previous generations.

I thought about that scene today when I saw the headlines about the boy that recently got trapped in a gorilla enclosure. The long and short of the story goes like this. A 3-year old boy climbed into the enclosure through an inadequate barrier. A 450-pound gorilla traps the boy and violently manhandles him. Knowing that tranquilizer darts would work too slowly, Zookeepers decided to kill the gorilla in order to save the boy. And that is what they did, and the boy is alive and well now.

Right call, right? Not so fast. Here are the headlines that that I have seen today:

‘Shooting an endangered animal is worse than murder’: Grief over gorilla’s death turns to outrage

Killing of Gorilla to Save Boy Sparks Outrage

Gorilla Seemed to Protect Child in Enclosure: Witness

The killing of a Cincinnati zoo gorilla resulted in outrage among animal rights supporters

Police could prosecute boy’s parents for gorilla’s death

Was the decision to kill endangered gorilla Harambe justified?”

Vigil planned at Cincinnati Zoo on Memorial Day in tribute to slain gorilla

And there are countless others I could link to. What do they have in common? They all seem to suggest that the boy’s life and well-being should be weighed in the balance with the gorilla’s. The whole exercise suggests a moral equivalence between people and animals that is non-existent.

This is not to say that we’re glad a gorilla had to die. Nor is it defending negligence on the part of the zoo. How the boy got into his situation is a separate moral question from what to do once he was in the situation. Once he was in the enclosure, the only priority should have been to protect the boy at all costs. And I don’t just mean the protection of his life. I mean the protection of his limb as well. It would be right to kill that gorilla even if it were only to prevent the gorilla from roughing him up and traumatizing him. That’s how precious human life is, and that used to be common sense.

One of the vices of the Ninevites of old was that they didn’t know the moral difference between people and animals (Jonah 3:8; 4:11). It was a sign that as a civilization they did not know that human beings alone are created in God’s image and as such have a superior value and dignity over all other creatures. The Ninevites were pagans, and they did not retain the knowledge that God made mankind alone in his own image (Genesis 1:26-27). It is an ominous sign of the times that the error of pagan Nineveh has overtaken the American mainstream.

Bottom line. Despite the “outrage” from animal rights supporters, the zoo did the right thing to protect the boy. And I’m glad they did.


  • Christiane Smith

    The animal died because of human failings . . . the child is innocent, of course.
    ‘Inadequate enclosures’ . . . perhaps these enclosures are built for keeping animals contained, but are apparently not effective in protecting small curious children who escape the care and supervision of a parent. And a mom who comes to any such facility, where she becomes distracted managing more children than is wise, will not be able to be effective in guaranteeing the safety of ALL of those children, which is her primary responsibility.

    The gorilla is dead. The child is safe. And if there is not an outpouring of complete joy in the Universe over these facts, I can understand it.

    Both the gorilla and the child were not responsible for what happened. Not the animal. Not the child.

  • steve hays

    Even if the gorilla “seemed to protect the child,” it would be immoral to risk the child’s safety to protect the gorilla. Wild animals can turn on a dime. The duty is to protect the child, not the animal. When in doubt, the child’s safety takes absolute precedence over the animal’s safety.

  • Ian Shaw

    People often forget that even in enclosures and seemingly docile, gorillas have 3-4 times the upper body strength of an adult male. The child could be killed in an instant.

  • buddyglass

    I think you missed the point about the scene from Man of Steel. If I’m remembering it correctly, the Jonathan Kent didn’t intend to sacrifice his life to save the dog. He just went out to get the dog, thinking he had a reasonable chance of making it back to safety. What made the scene compelling is not that Jonathan sacrificed himself for a dog, but that Jonathan instructed his adoptive son, Clark, to let him die rather than expose his identity as Superman. And then Clark had to watch his adoptive father die knowing it was within his ability to save him. For me, that was the primary source of the pathos. The dog had nothing to do with it.

    • Denny Burk

      Yes, that was the larger point of the scene. But the whole thing was premised on the risk he took to save the dog. Obviously, he knew the risk of trying to retrieve the dog. And that’s my point. Not worth the risk.

      • buddyglass

        “Not worth the risk.”

        Sure. And I agree. But I don’t think the director was trying to make some great point about the equivalency of people and animals by choosing to show Jonathan Kent take such a risk. He was just representing how people actually act. Including people who explicitly reject the premise that there’s moral equivalency between people and animals. I suspect there are plenty of bible-believing Christians who would run into a burning house to save a beloved pet. That there are folks who would do that doesn’t make the decision “correct”, but it does make it somewhat “normal” or “commonplace”.

        Also, I disagree that the foolishness of Kent sacrificing himself to save a dog necessarily invalidates the “heroism” of the act. Typically heroism centers around courage and bravery. He risked his own life in a selfless attempt to save something other than himself. He exhibited courage, even if the goal he was trying to achieve was ultimately not worth the risks he took.

        • Denny Burk

          We’ll have to agree to disagree. There’s nothing heroic about risking your life to save a dog. It is a foolish and irresponsible thing to do, not to mention when you risk making your wife a widow and your son fatherless. It’s foolish and wrong.

  • Christiane Smith

    I think people do mourn the death of the animal. And even though they have empathy with the plight of the boy and the need the security team felt that led to the death of the animal, there is still a lingering sadness. We can’t ‘second guess’ how this might have played out better because during the crisis, people did what they thought was the right thing to do, to prioritize the life of the child. And there is no fault in that. The pity is that responsible people failed in their duty prior the crisis, and an animal had to be killed because of that failure.

    And yet there lingers a sadness over the death of the animal in the hearts of many who validate God’s unquestioned ownership of all living creatures, “In whose Hand is the soul of every living thing, and the spirit of all flesh of man.” (Job 12:10)

    ‘Animal lovers’ and ‘animal activists’ will blur the lines honored by many people of faith, yes. But on the other hand, there is a real concern that in our culture, callousness towards the fate of animals is a reflection of a growing contempt for all Creation including contempt for the sanctity of human life itself.

    • steve hays

      “But on the other hand, there is a real concern that in our culture, callousness towards the fate of animals is a reflection of a growing contempt for all Creation including contempt for the sanctity of human life itself.”

      So the contrary, we have a developing culture divide where many young people operate with an antinatalist philosophy. They love dogs and cats instead of children. They consider children to be a nuisance. They resent children. To mention resent the elderly and developmentally disabled. Animal welfare becomes their alternative to true humanitarian concern.

      You are laboring to create a linkage where their attitude is precisely the opposite. It makes them feel virtuous to be kind to animals as a substitute for charity towards babies, the elderly, the developmentally disabled.

      • Christiane Smith

        Hi STEVE HAYS,
        I hear you. But I think there is great reason to respect all life because of its Source, and to recognize that the kindness people give to animals is also a form of honoring their Creator. In the Book of Job, there is an interesting commentary of how the living creatures of the Earth are living witnesses to God. In Job 12, we find this:
        “7”But now ask the beasts, and let them teach you; And the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you. 8″Or speak to the earth, and let it teach you; And let the fish of the sea declare to you. 9″Who among all these does not know That the hand of the LORD has done this”

        I suppose there is a portion of our culture that abuses animals, usually for reasons of greed, but there are others who recognize that animals can offer therapy to human beings and can be trained to serve as guide dogs and assistants to the handicapped. And so often, a child’s first understanding of responsibility is in the care of a beloved pet.

        For those who have rejected ‘humans’ in favor of their pets, I wonder if there are emotional reasons for that beyond greed? And as for the young who don’t want children, it is very true that our culture has been preaching fearfulness and uncertainty about the future, yes even from blogs and pulpits. If these young people are fearful to bring children into such a world, I cannot but wonder what we may have done not to give them more hope. Thanks for communicating.

  • Gus Nelson

    The very fact that people can be “outraged” the gorilla was killed, in itself, shows the absolute difference between human beings and animals. We do consider the welfare of gorillas. Do any of these folks suppose for one minute other gorillas would have been “outraged” if the child had been torn from limb to limb? It’s truly not that hard to see the difference. Moreover, not one single person who is “outraged” over the gorilla’s death would be outraged if it were their child in that position.

Comment here. Please use FIRST and LAST name.